Thanks to increasing adoption of renewable energy, declining market costs of many renewable technologies, and the availability of financial incentives that help subsidize the cost of installation, the photovoltaic (PV) panel market has grown dramatically over the past several years. In fact, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), a new PV installation is completed every 84 seconds. Collectively, the nation’s 1.3 million-plus solar installations represent enough electricity to power more than 8 million American homes, and the SEIA estimates that, by 2021, U.S. solar capacity will more than double from 42 gigawatts (GW) to 100 GW.
Chicago-based Hardt Electric recently contributed to this positive market momentum in a rooftop solar-power installation at Macy’s distribution facility in Minooka, Ill., southwest of Chicago. It was part of Macy’s company-wide sustainability initiative done in conjunction with SunPower Corp., a San Jose, Calif.-based manufacturer of PV cells, roof tiles and solar panels. The installation is one of some 20 high-efficiency SunPower solar-energy systems installed this past year at Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s locations in seven states, which total 15 megawatts (MW) and add to the nearly 24 MW of SunPower solar-power systems that have been operating at the renowned retailer’s facilities since 2007.
“As a leading national retailer with 140,000 dedicated associates, we have the opportunity to maximize the value of unused roof areas at our stores and fulfillment centers across the country by deploying SunPower’s high-efficiency solar technology to create more energy in less space and make a meaningful difference in improving the environment,” said Chuck Abt, senior vice president of operations, Macy’s Inc., in a statement.
An innovative approach
As a SunPower-authorized commercial dealer for the past eight years, third-generation, family-owned Hardt Electric—founded by Carl Hardt as C&H Electric in the 1930s and relaunched as Hardt Electric by sons Bill and David Hardt in 1973—was more than happy to help bring this vision to reality.
“We were excited to be approached by SunPower in 2016 and given the opportunity to bid on a large project like this one with Macy’s,” said Peter Hardt, vice president of operations.
The project at the 12-acre, 860,000-square-foot distribution center involved a solar-power installation on some 215,000 square feet of the building’s roof. Hardt Electric quickly found the economics of the project’s specific labor requirements difficult to coordinate.
“We went through an exhaustive back-and-forth exchange [with SunPower and Macy’s] related to terms, prices and budgets and realized that we’d need to involve the support of a different classification of labor in order to make the project work,” Hardt said.
The solution was using construction wiremen/construction Electricians (CW/CE) from IBEW Local No. 461 in Aurora, Ill.
“We reached out to Local 461 to collaborate on this project and they were willing to support us by providing workers to help bring in materials and conduct other jobs that could be completed by a lower classification of laborer,” Hardt said. “Successful management of this project required a precise understanding of where we needed skilled tradespeople versus nonskilled workers and helped us use our own trained and JATC-certified electricians and installers most productively, while giving members of Local 461 entrée to a market that they might never have had access to. It opened the door to job opportunities by lowering the entrance threshold, but in a managed way.”
[SB]Launched in late summer 2016, installation of the 2-MW rooftop array involved the use of 6,108 327-watt SunPower Helix modules—durable, pre-engineered, fully integrated rooftop solar solutions for commercial customers that maximize power production and install easily, enabling customers to scale their solar programs quickly with minimal business disruption.
“Once the layout was in place and the racking was down, it was ‘pop and go,’” Hardt said.
The team consisted of three Hardt Electric electricians/installers and some 20 journeymen, apprentices and CW/CE workers. Though icy weather conditions and heavy snow in January and February 2017 made the roof too hazardous to work on, the team successfully completed the installation in March, and Macy’s began enjoying the benefits.
“Macy’s distribution center in Minooka is now on a grid-tie solution, which uses net metering to monitor energy usage based on a meteorological review of the area’s average number of hours of light per day,” Hardt said. “The facility will draw from the utility when not producing energy, but when their solar is active, it will slow the meter down or even spin it backwards and return the energy back to the grid for credit.”
While the distribution facility was previously reliant on the local utility for electricity as well as subject to its rates, Hardt said that Macy’s electricity payments will now be fixed for 25 years, the length of SunPower’s warranty on the solar panels.
“It was a very successful project involving a high-quality product installed by a reputable team, and we stand by what we built,” he said.
A new way of working
While the energy savings speak for themselves, team members were equally excited about the manner in which the project’s labor needs were met.
“Participation in this project got our members out to work on a solar application, a field we’re just getting into,” said Joel Pyle, business manager and financial secretary, IBEW Local No. 461.
Communication was key on the project, and Pyle said his team worked well with their Hardt Electric colleagues.
“It was a successful installation, and we were glad to secure the work for our members and get them on a job for 3–5 months, especially during the winter,” he said.
Bruce Creen, executive director of the Northeastern Illinois Chapter of NECA, said this new way of working holds great promise for the future of the electrical contracting industry.
“As Market Recovery Agreements continue to be adopted and improved upon across the country, electrical contractors will be in a better position to offer a greater value proposition, especially on those projects that can be performed with a mixture of the most highly trained electrical workers in combination with workers such as construction wiremen and construction electricians, who have been trained to perform many of the more routine tasks that nonetheless represent an important component of electrical construction projects,” he said.
The collaboration between Hardt Electric and the journeymen, apprentices and CW/CE workers was the first in that area.
With a flexible mixture of highly trained electricians with deep technical skills being supported by talented workers trained for specific tasks, the CW/CE model can provide attractive employment opportunities to a wide cross-section of workers in the electrical construction field.
“As many systems become increasingly engineered for ease of installation and as industry practices move toward more off-site fabrication and assembly, the path that Hardt Electric has blazed in this jurisdiction is sure to be followed by others,” Creen said.
Getting the job done
“This successful installation positions Macy’s to reduce their operating expenses and have a more fixed understanding of their electricity costs in the future,” Hardt said.
From a project management perspective, the experience proved educational for the team.
“It’s about getting your team to understand that there are various levels of electrical work,” he said. “The fact is, bidding it this way is part of how we got the job. We accomplished our goals and are extremely proud of the work we did.”